Fall Back: An Essay by John Simonds

John Simonds







Fall colors ablaze.

Fall colors ablaze.

The mere mention of fall sends me into a state of near ecstasy. It is, without debate, my most favorite season because every one of my five senses comes alive with tingling delight. And there is nowhere on the face of this earth that does fall better than Vermont—it is where I grew up, and it is where most of my richest memories were formed and shaped over many decades.

Vermont grows lots of apples, especially the McIntosh Apple, which is as sweet and juicy as anything created under heaven. September is apple-picking time, and roadside stands invite you to come join in on the harvest and enjoy some cider, freshly squeezed with a giant wooden press and poured into one-gallon glass jugs. Of course, now that I have a dental plate, it’s a little more difficult to take that first bite; but when I do, the sweet nectar sometimes drips down my chin and onto my well-worn khakis.

It is always a treat in September to go to the Poetry Foundation website to read Robert Frost:

My long two pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. . . .

As September segues into October, the leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll, replacing the green with red, orange, and yellow. That has always seemed like a fair trade to me.

As I recall, it is the native birch bark trees that turn yellow first and the sugar maples that are last (but with the brightest reds). It is time to travel the back roads to experience the panoply of colors in the woods where Robert Frost stopped on a snowy night—if only that were possible.

At its peak, Vermont becomes the mecca for leaf watching. Busloads of tourists from Boston and New York arrive in the fabled Northeast Kingdom on the border with Canada. There are little old ladies in sneakers with binoculars dangling around their necks and older men wearing plaid shirts from L.L. Bean. Vermont sells a lot syrup and maple candy to these folks from the city, while I stayed home and raked the leaves into large piles. My young children delighted in the sport of lunging head first into these piles making a crunching sound as they piled on.

When we finished with this sport, I would push the piles of leaves off the curb and onto the edge of the street against the curb before pouring a little gasoline from a five-gallon plastic container. Whoosh! The leaves would ignite, throwing off a bright flame that lasted only a few minutes before settling down to a slow and steady burn that could linger for hours. Several neighbors were engaged in the same activity, and very soon, the distinctive smell of burning leaves on a cool October day delivered the message that the first frost would be arriving soon.

Of course, all of this was long before Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, outlawing the burning leaves because of the toxins they sent into the atmosphere. How sad that new generations will miss the experience of smelling burning leaves in fall.

In those early years, nearly every one in Vermont had a wood burning fireplace, considered essential for comfort and warmth over the long, arctic winters. Some of us with a romantic bent went looking for apple wood to burn; it was reputed to give off the finest scent since Chanel No. 5. Furthermore, it had a good BTU rating, meaning we got a lot of heat for our buck. I guess I voted for Ronald Reagan because he liked to chop wood for exercise. So did I, and I became quite proficient with a log-splitting axe that had an extra heavy blade.

But now I live on the Chicago River, where wood stoves are prohibited and the mallard ducks are beginning to think about their annual migration. Just this morning, I noticed that the River Birch and Cottonwoods are already beginning to give up their leaves to the river, even though it is two days before the autumnal equinox. Some nerve they’ve got, jumping the gun like that.

One of my main objectives this fall is to block out the annoying ruckus being caused by a presidential election season. What is going on with Trump and Clinton makes me want to go tramping in the distant woods of Vermont. Instead, I put on the mournful horn of Chet Baker and listen to him sing Autumn Leaves before I go to sleep with my dog, Bianca, pressed against me for comfort.